Three children with hands raised in classroom

Dear Dr. Mooney,
About half of my third grade students are ELs. Their language abilities range from beginner to almost native-speaker like. Most are really well behaved, polite, kind, and hard working. I really enjoy being their teacher! The problem is that some are very hesitant to talk when I call on them in class. Even when I know they know the answer, they seem too shy or intimidated to speak in front of the class. What can I do to encourage them to engage more in classroom discussions?
Teacher of Silent ELs

There are many reasons why an English Learner (EL) might remain silent during whole class discussions. They might not understand what is being said, or they could still be in the Silent Period. Many need more wait time when questions are asked, and still others need different opportunities for engagement.

1. What??

One possibility for their silence is that they simply don’t understand what you’re saying. In this case, the most important thing you can do is work to make your speech as comprehensible as possible by using pictures, diagrams, and gestures. (EL teachers are often great at charades!) Although you should not speak unnaturally slowly, it also doesn’t hurt to slow your rate of speech a little and eliminate idioms (“It’s raining cats and dogs!) and slang as much as possible.

2. Busy Being Silent

If you have indications that the students understand what’s being said, then another potential cause is that they are still in what scholars call the Silent Period. It happens to almost all language learners. It’s during this time at the beginning of the language development process that they are very busy absorbing everything that’s going on around them. Their brains are working to sort out this new language and connect it to what they already know. The Silent Period can last up to two years depending upon the students’ prior exposure to English and their schooling experiences. 

3. Wait!

Responding to a question in front of a room full of your peers can be overwhelming for many native English speakers. Now imagine doing so in a language you don’t yet fully grasp! To prepare to respond, beginning English Learners must hear your question, translate it into their native language, come up with an answer, and then translate back into English. Many teachers don’t provide enough wait time for that process and by the time the EL is ready to respond, the teacher has already called on another student or asked a different question, which starts the process all over again! If you know the EL knows the answer to your question, try giving them more wait time. While you wait – Smile encouragingly. Require other students to wait patiently. Point to any words or visuals that might support their answer. Nod affirmatively when they begin speaking. Don’t cut them off, but reiterate and fill out their response, if needed. Most importantly – wait quietly so they can think!

4. Engage in Small Groups

Another idea to consider is the environment in which you are expecting them to speak. Even if students’ brains are working quickly at the process described above, they may still be hesitant to speak to the whole class. An easy solution is pair or small group work. Classes of 25 or more students can’t allow every student to speak individually when the teacher asks a question. However, when students are placed in pairs, triads, or small groups, they have much more opportunity to talk. Discussing an academic subject with one other student is much less intimidating. Partners typically support one another in their efforts to communicate and when the tasks they are given to discuss actually REQUIRE talk, most students will engage. Even students in the silent period will often find ways to communicate their thoughts and ideas, even if it’s through gestures or drawings. 

Suggested Activity: Donut Circles

A quick way to utilize pair work in the classroom is with Donut Circles (Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning, P. Gibbons, 2015). I’ve also heard it called Inside/Outside Circle. It can be used with any age student and any content area subject. 

Have half of the class form a tight circle, almost shoulder to shoulder, depending upon the space available. Then, ask them to turn around so their backs are to the inside of the circle. The remaining students should now find one student to face, forming an outside circle around the first. The students who are now facing each other are partners. 

To begin the discussion, the teacher asks a question or poses an issue that students are to discuss. I like to tell which partner should speak first – either Inside Circle person or Outside Circle person, but both should respond in the 1-2 minute time limit. When time is up, ask the outside circle to rotate two partners to their left. (This may take practice and more instruction with younger students.) This is their new discussion partner for question/topic 2. Continue the procedure with one question at a time. Another option is to give students a printed copy of several ideas to talk about. One difficulty with giving them all of the questions or ideas at once is that some students will finish too quickly and might disengage.

Donut Circles are great because ELs are tasked with engaging only one other student, and this creates a less threatening environment. Students may find it easier to talk to one peer than another, and by rotating partners, you are giving them multiple opportunities to engage with someone new. 

Encouraging silent students to speak can be challenging when you don’t know the cause of their silence. The next time you hear those proverbial crickets after asking a question, consider whether your students understood what you said, or if they might still be in the Silent Period. Maybe you could add more wait time after your questions or offer different opportunities for engagement, such as Donut Circles. These are just a few ideas to consider as you work to welcome all of your students into the discussion!

Let’s talk about this!

I’m interested in hearing about how you get your students to speak in small or large group discussions. What challenges have you faced? What have you found to be successful?

A new Discussion opens today about these ideas.

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